Ever start watching a movie somewhere in the middle and think, “Boy, this looks good,” so you stop watching and decide to see the whole thing, only to find out that the part you saw was a misleading tease? That was my reaction to The Black Dahlia.
This movie was based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy, and both movie and book were inspired by the sensational Hollywood murder of Elizabeth Short. On the face of it, you’d think the subject would make for a great neo-noir period film. Unfortunately, the film tries so hard to project the feel of 1940s Hollywood and the off-balance edginess of the noir genre, the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own excesses.
First off, I should warn you that this review contains spoilers. That really shouldn’t matter since I highly recommend you not waste two hours watching it.
The story revolves around two LA cops (named Bucky and Lee) investigating the murder, who form a love triangle with Kay (Scarlett Johansson). Bucky is attracted to Kay, but Lee saw her first and Bucky feels that he owes Lee his life. So right way I thought Kay might be the femme fatale, which I’m sure was intended.
Anyway, the investigation of Elizabeth Short reveals that she made porno films. Movies with a lot of girl-on-girl action. And while Lee becomes obsessed to the point of crazy with solving the murder, Bucky goes to a lesbian nightclub (a sequence larded with lavish musical productions and women groping each other) and meets Madeleine (who looks as much like Elizabeth as Hilary Swank can pull off). Bucky then sublimates his unrequited love for Kay in Madeleine’s arms.
But the real fun doesn’t start until he meets the family. Madeleine’s dad is the stern patriarch, her sister is, of course, provocative, and mom apparently needs to double up on her meds. Typical Hollywood family fare.
Things drag on for about an hour and a half until something finally happens. Lee meets with Bobby DeWitt (who had mistreated Kay and robbed stolen money from Bugsy Siegel) with the intent to kill him, thus keeping the girl and the money. Except a shadowy figure creeps up on Lee and kills him. And the audience is supposed to think it’s a man – har!
The rest of the movie is spent crawling toward the inevitable end. And guess who the killer is? It isn’t Madeleine’s daddy, who made Elizabeth Short’s porn flicks. It’s Mommy Dearest, whose confession scene has all the subtlety of a cross between Norma Desmond’s final close-up and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
When it came to Lee’s killer, I just knew it was a woman. The question was which woman? If it were Kay, she could keep all the stolen money, be rid of Lee (who was, frankly, becoming annoying), and get Bucky. It would make more sense than the actual ending, in which Madeleine killed Lee in a misguided attempt to protect her crazy family.
The movie ends up with Kay and Lee coming together. And all I could think was, “Maybe she has an ice pick under the bed.”
If so, we never find out.
I’m just glad I checked this movie out of the library for free. Now I’d like my two hours back.
Truly, this is how I felt by the end of the film!